A week ago, we recalled American music historian Mike Seeger, who was a founding member of the old-time revival group New Lost City Ramblers in 1958, almost 50 years before he ever laid down the autoharp for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on their studio version of "Your Long Journey." Now deceased, Seeger admitted in a 2007 interview for Lemon Squeezings that he didn't know who Plant was when he worked with him. Seeger was big on making distinctions between folk music and other styles. In fact, he even believed that not all folk music was folk music. He explained in the liner notes of The New Lost City Ramblers Vol. 4, released in 1962:
In the performance of folk songs, the urban singer may take one of three basic approaches; that of Art (with a capital A) music, of popular music, or of folk music (the traditional style of folk song performance). In general, the first two of these categories view the folk song as raw material on which to base compositions or rearrangements that they think will be acceptable to city audiences.As Plant takes his unreleased set of 12 songs on the road this month to 12 cities in the United States, he'll find out how acceptable they are to the audiences. The first of these songs ever named in the media -- in an interview with Darrell Scott published on Feb. 11 for the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier -- was a song of many names, often referred to simply as "Cindy."
How appropriate that the interview was published in Bristol, the Virginia town bordering Tennessee that is hailed as "the birthplace of country music." Eight miles to the east is the Cherokee National Forest, and immediately east of that begins the border separating Virginia and North Carolina. It is in this area that the song "Cindy" developed, according to music historian John Lomax, who died in 1948 at age 80.
liner notes of one album that included a track called "Get Along Home, Cindy":
The American city folk singer, because he got his songs from books or from other city singers, has generally not been aware of the singing style or the emotional content of these folk songs, as they exist in tradition. ...Lomax also explained that techniques of varying songs was something that could be learned -- and, in fact, had already been. He cited the work of a Dublin-born singer named Seamus Ennis "who can create brilliant and beautiful variants of the songs he has learned in the field or compose new tunes in the same manner, as easily as Sidney Bechet can improvise a new break on the soprano sax."
Singing style is the means by which the singer expresses the subtle emotional nuances of the song. If it is a folk song, then these nuances stand for the way that a whole culture has felt about a particular subject. We have as yet no language for describing these matters. They cannot be written down in conventional musical notation. But they can be heard and felt in a recorded or live performance. By the same token they can be learned, if the singer is possessed of sufficient seriousness and sensitivity, but not nearly so easily as instrumental technique can be learned. In order to acquire a folk singing style, you have to experience the feelings that lie behind it, and learn to express them as the folk singers do. This takes time, but there is no question that it is worth while [sic]. Here the city singer of folk songs is playing his full and serious role -- that is, to interpret for his city audience, the lives and feelings of the past or of a faroff society -- to link them emotionally. If he does so, he will grow within the terms of a folk art. As an interpretive artist, he will become one link in a vital musical chain anchored in the hearts of humanity and of the past. Finally, if he is truly dedicated, he will find his own way to making his personal contributions, great or small, within the limits of the artistic tradition he has chosen as his life's work.
It is interesting to explore what Lomax, who died in 2002, would have thought of the West Bromwich-born Robert Plant covering songs like "Your Long Journey" and "Cindy" in this century. Lomax might have expressed support, for after all it's not as if Plant is seeking to write new music from scratch these days. In Lomax's own words:
It would seem to me to be a requirement for a "folksinger" that he learn the art of variation of a particular style of folk-song before he begins to create variants of his own. In the first place, his new revision will, almost certainly, be in bad taste, an unpleasant, half-baked article like a pop song rapped out on Bizet or Tschaikowsky. And in any case, his variant will be something different from and less than a folk song, since he is different from and, in this respect, less than an accomplished folk singer.(Well, I guess that clears up what opinions Lomax might have held with regard to Led Zeppelin's "How Many More Times," part of which is based indirectly on Maurice Ravel's "Bolero" via "Beck's Bolero" from Jeff Beck, or Emerson Lake and Palmer's Pictures at an Exhibition, which is based on Modest Mussorgsky's 1874 piano suite.)
Back to the matter at hand, variations in music. "Cindy" is one prime example of a song that has undergone countless iterations. First, the title: "Cindy, Cindy" and "Get Along Home, Cindy" and "Cindy in the Summertime" and "Cindy in the Meadows" and "Whoop 'em Up Cindy" are only a few of the titles that have been assigned to an even deeper pool of disparate sets of lyrics. Long before the era of standardized national radio or even records, songs varied from community to community based on oral tradition. Depending on what community you lived in, or what singer you heard play it, you might know and favor a completely different version of the song somebody else does.
Plus, each singer was basically encouraged to add his or her own lyrics to the song. In a group setting, multiple singers would trade off verses, often trying to outdo the others in terms of witty original verses on a common theme. The format of "Cindy" lends itself to this particularly well; the verses are short, consisting of one or two rhyming couplets, followed immediately by the chorus.
Jimmy Page fans are familiar with this tradition if they've heard "Stealing, Stealing" by the Yardbirds from 1967. Page encountered the format about 10 years earlier, when he helped sing "Mama Don't Allow" on TV. In his rendition, it was skiffle playin' that Mama wouldn't allow; in the hands of other performers, somebody else's mama wouldn't allow nose flute playin', and even more restrictive mamas wouldn't allow no music at all. One could even argue that "Dazed and Confused" underwent the same kind of evolution when sung by Jake Holmes, Keith Relf and Robert Plant in three successive years.
Whoop 'em Up Cindy" on their second volume of old-time music for the Folkways record label in 1960 and "Cindy" on Vol. 4 only two years later. They viewed them as essentially different songs from one another, each one worthy of being heard independently. Likewise, Mountain Frolic: Rare Old Timey Classics 1924-1937, a four-CD box set released by JSP Records in 2008, contains two versions: "Get Along Home Cindy" on the first disc is by banjo player Bascom Lamar Lunsford from 1928, while disc three delivers "Cindy" by guitarist Bradley Kincaid from 1929.
One essential version of "Cindy" emerged in 1959 on Guy Carawan's album Guy Carawan Sings Something Old, New, Borrowed and Blue - Guy Carawan, Vol. 2. Played with a banjo, his version includes the chorus "Get along home, Cindy Cindy, get along home./ Get along home, Cindy Cindy, I'll marry you someday." The chorus represents both of the titles Robert Plant's version is going by -- that's right, Plant's version has already been called "Get Along Home, Cindy" and "Cindy, I'll Marry You Someday." (Amazon.com shows the title as the former, while AllMusic.com reflects the latter.) So, which is it? A June 11 press release about the album calls the track "Cindy, I'll Marry You Someday"; the same is true on the official record with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. We can safely bet on that being the proper title.
Elvis Presley's take on the song was released on his 1971 album, Love Letters from Elvis.
A press release dated June 14 suggests Plant chose the song based off of the recording by "Appalachian banjo minstrel Bascom Lamar Lunsford." He has been called the "minstrel of the Appalachians," and it's also been said that Lunsford went out of his way to censor himself, either avoiding verses that contained obscene lyrics or sometimes entire songs altogether. It may have been the case, but his use of the N word in the opening couplet of his "Get Along Home Cindy" may be more objectionable today than it was when he recorded it in 1928. Additionally, his lyrics refer to intoxication by liquor -- shocking, considering it was recorded during the Prohibition era!
By the way, the ASCAP record for Plant's version indicates the singer will share a writing credit with producer Buddy Miller on their version of "Cindy." The same applies to their version of "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down," explored one week ago in this 12-part series. (Again, I wonder what Alan Lomax would say to that!)
Now, before anybody protests (too late!) that Plant has been covering so many old folk songs that he's getting repetitious, here's something to consider. By the time the New Lost City Ramblers' fourth volume came about in 1962, the group had already released 52 cover songs on six sides of vinyl records. Vol. 4 added 16 more, bringing the grand total of songs to 68. Anticipating the notion that their selections were becoming less essential with each release, or more repetitive, member John Cohen countered:
It does seem this is exactly what Plant's continuing musical discovery has led him to do. And he also appears to be picking up on the emotional aspect of it, too. He says:The bottom of the barrel is nowhere in sight, for as we continue with the material at hand, our horizons seem to open up and we now take in that which we passed by before.
During the tour with Alison [Krauss], I spent a lot of time talking about music with Buddy [Miller]. I found that I had no real conception of what 'Nashville' really is. It's a lot of different things. Buddy's zone is beautiful, with a lot of reflections going back into mid-Fifties rockabilly and all the great country stuff, along with the soul and R&B from Memphis, which is as black as Nashville is white. He can play like anybody from Hubert Sumlin, to Chet Atkins, to whoever you like. It's not just about picking excellent musicality, but the deep soul of it too. Buddy's integral to this album. You can hear his taste all over it.Next week's third installment of this series delves into a third track that will be credited to Buddy Miller and Robert Plant.